News From Africa

Kenya: Railway Line Revival Will Rekindle Once Booming Train-Station Trade


President Uhuru Kenyatta has over the past three months visited the Nairobi Railway Station unannounced six times. The station is the headquarters of the Kenya Railways Corporation (KRC), but it has always been and so there is something else that invites incognito presidential visits. What is it?

One, the management of KRC, under Managing Director Philip Mainga, has made the rehabilitation of the Metre Gauge Railway (MGR) a priority, which dovetails with President Kenyatta’s legacy-bound Big Four Agenda. Development of infrastructure is a key plank of the President’s legacy.

Two, Mr Mainga & Co would appear to have embraced, and impressed upon the President that, the rehabilitation of the MGR using the National Youth Service (NYS) is substantially cost-effective and, therefore, a massive avenue for saving taxpayers’ money.

Mr Mainga declares for example that rehabilitation of the Nanyuki line cost Sh1.8 billion, whereas estimates put the figure at Sh10 billion if the job was undertaken commercially. It is not commercial firms that are rehabilitating MGR across the land, including the Nairobi Railway Station.

Spur economic activity

Three, Mr Mainga & Co and President Kenyatta would appear to appreciate the power of a rehabilitated MGR network to help spur economic activity along the railway lines (corridors) throughout Kenya.

Needless to say many of Kenya’s towns grew up along the railway lines then stagnated when Kenya Railways (KR) capsized under the weight of corruption in the 1980s.

Four, the President and his foe-turned-fan Raila Odinga, on determining the port of Kisumu needs rehabilitating to play a pivotal role in the commercial life of Lake Victoria and beyond, concluded it must be served by a railway line. Needless to say, most ports are served by railway lines.

I have it on the authority of Mr Maingi and also that of his strategic communications advisor Timothy Muyunza, that the Kisumu-Butere railway line, which passes through my rural village of Ebwiranyi, will be rehabilitated mid next year.

Last, Messrs Kenyatta, Odinga, Mainga and the management of KRC must be convinced a rehabilitated MGR network will help revive many towns, energise commercial activity countrywide and help put money in Kenyans’ pockets.

History bears them out. At certain times of the day, all roads led to the railway station. It hosted to varied and similar but competing trading activities. Why? Because the station was a meeting point.

Women balanced baskets laden with local produce on their heads; men pushed handcarts full of produce; taxi men waited; ditto expectant owners of eateries. There was a market day at the local centre, but trading went on every day at the station and its environs.

The station was the focus of trading activity that peaked with the arrival of a train, especially a passenger train.

Around railway stations grew trading centres, which grew into urban centres and grew into towns.

Kisian, Lela, Maseno, Luanda, Yala, Namasoli and Butere were better known to the peoples of Western, Nyanza and beyond because of the passenger trains that snaked their way to and from Kisumu every day of the year without fail through the 60s, 70s and 80s.

And Kibos, Miwani, Kibigori, Chemelil, Muhoroni, Koru, Fort Ternan, Tunnel, Kipkelion, Kedowa, Londiani, Mau Summit, Molo, Turi, Elburgon and Njoro dotted the stretch between Kisumu and Nakuru, the halfway mark between the lakeside city and Nairobi, the capital.

Need I name more? No. Point made. But this needs addressing: What does rehabilitation portend? Mr Kenyatta is excited for those counties housing the MGR corridors.

But this will count for nothing if national and devolved governments do not make available affordable credit or help equip locals with modern skill and tool kits in the age of coronavirus.

Second, have KRC and governments learned lessons from the collapse of KR? The business of a railway, rehabilitated or new, MGR or Standard Gauge Railway, is business. MGR will only spur business if it is a successful business.

Last, not least, what is the lesson from SGR and MGR? I would say prudence, frugality and how not to fail. What, then, is the plan for KR’s future? Messrs Kenyatta and Mainga should address this soonest. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

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